Chances are you’ve already missed Halloween. No, not the carving of the pumpkins or the trick-or-treating, which I’ll feel less foolish doing when I bring my daughter. (I’m a sucker for wax teeth and bags of candy corn, and just give them up without complaint when this middle-aged goblin shows up at your door tonight.) I mean John Carpenter’s 1978 classic, the movie that redefined the celebration. So far as I can tell, its one and only broadcast, on no less an occasion than its 30th anniversary, is, or was, on commercial-ridden, censor-happy AMC, at 9:30am, a time when most serial killers are still in bed. I note that the inferior sequels are getting some airtime, while the real deal goes unnoticed. It’s not like Rob Zombie’s trailer-trash remake has stabbed it in the back by pushing it off the schedule—that’s not on, either. Imagine Christmas if TV programmers decided to give It’s a Wonderful Life a year off, or retire A Christmas Story. As someone who loves horror movies, I protest.
But my revolution will not be televised, so like the mom caught short on Oct. 31 who has to cut holes in her white sheet so Junior can dress up as a ghost, I improvise. I suspect it’s late in the game to be renting the DVD, and if it’s not on your shelf, you’ll have to move on. Going to a movie may not do the trick: Quarantine has burned itself out, a fifth Saw is about as enticing as a third High School Musical if you’re just not into the franchise, and The Haunting of Molly Hartley smells like the kind of blah teen terror destined to haunt video stores in an underwhelming “Unrated” edition by early next year. I can recommend Let the Right One In and Splinter, which are now playing—alas, their independent distributors have them in limited release only, and unless you live near where they are playing they may have missed their peak moment, to face the fate of vampires caught at dawn when their runs expand.
That would be a pity. Let me say that Let the Right One In, from Sweden, shouldn’t be mistaken for Halloween-dependent, so when it turns up in your neighborhood, pounce. I’d love it if it opened on the Fourth of July, and it would be a good choice for Valentine’s Day, as it is a love story, a most unsettling one. Based on a 2004 novel, it takes the creepiest idea from Interview with the Vampire—the notion of an undead child, a doll-like immortal with fearsome predatory urges—and runs with it. As George A. Romero’s set his classic Martin, another superior twist on bloodsucking, in a fading Pittsburgh, Let the Right One In (a title adapted from a Morrissey song) takes place in a snowbound, fraying-at-the-edges housing complex outside Stockholm, a perfectly anonymous place for the undead to tap fresh blood. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a smart but unformed twelve-year-old with a quiet thirst for revenge against his tormentors, is the ideal recruit for Eli (Lena Leandersson), the ghoul next door.
But theirs is a tentative alliance, which the director, Tomas Alfredson, and the novelist-screenwriter, John Adjvide Lindqvist, unfold with exceptional grace. This is a foremost a terrific movie about children, the best in a fantasy context since Pan’s Labyrinth. Their courtship begins when the icily enthralling Eli solves the puzzle of Oskar’s Rubik’s cube, which draws the shy boy from his shell. What’s most intriguing about the film is not vampirism, but its observation that all friendship begins with seduction. The strengthening of their bond is paralleled by the unraveling of Eli’s tie with her assumed father, Hakan (Per Ragnar), the older man she lives with. He has done the dirty work of procuring her victims for years, and like David Bowie in The Hunger has begun to outlive his usefulness. Thus a beguiling trap is set for Oskar, as he falls under the spell of his new playmate.
Much as I groove on vampires and zombies, they are done to death as metaphors. I like that neck-biting is out of the closet on HBO’s True Blood, which wrings a few variations on the living dead—but the hothouse ambiance is too aggressively Southern-fried, and the weekly sex scenes a throwback to when cable was considered “naughty” back around 1986. The loss of innocence is Let the Right One In is portrayed without all the background noise, which makes it all the more chilling. And there are some real scares here: Alfredson, a talent to watch, knows when to open up the throttle. Cloverfield director Matt Reeeves has announced a remake, for the reconstituted Hammer Films; I’m glad to have the studio that brought us Horror of Dracula and all the rest of my favorite Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing pictures back from the dead, but this is one to watch with its subtitles, and subtleties, intact.
Splinter, which I watched on HDNet Movies prior to today’s release, is a simpler picture, and no less effective for it. The half-dozen people in it are outnumbered by body parts, reanimated by an unexplained parasite that worms its way into its victims via splinters, then forms new patchwork creatures from the remains. Or something—the director, effects artist Toby Wilkins, keeps the pace, and the camerawork, cracking, so the visual seams and plot holes don’t show too much. Most of the movie takes place at an Oklahoma gas station, where the characters are forced to take refuge, and the film makes good use of its location, which turns out to be multi-purpose when under biological attack. Script-wise, the movie takes care to build up rooting interest in its people—two couples, one kidnapped by the other—before they donate their bodies to science fiction. I’m not sure there’s been a crawling hand this good outside of the Evil Dead pictures, and that’s really saying something. Splinter would benefit from a raucous Halloween crowd cheering it on. Still, it worked fine at home, where I could duck under the couch when things got too intense.
If Halloween finds you housebound, with no Carpenter classic to curl up with, there are other options. New releases at the video store that I recommend are The Signal, a film in three acts—the first an exact evocation of Seventies horrors like Romero’s The Crazies, the second a horror-comedy of epically bad manners, and the third a nod to the spacier reaches of David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs, all tied to a murder-minded transmission. I also liked the new, unreleased-to-theaters Rogue, from the Australian director of the grisly Wolf Creek, Greg McLean. This is that rarity: A subtle giant crocodile picture, with tremendous Down Under atmosphere—it’s not too much of a stretch to say that it’s like the cult hit Walkabout with a great big lizard—and jump-out-of-your-chair moments whenever the beast comes up from the saltwater marshes for a bite.
And TV isn’t entirely a letdown. If crocs are your thing, Eaten Alive, Tobe Hooper’s 1976 followup to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, has a homegrown one, ministered to be an over-the-top Neville Brand. It’s on IFC at 7:15pm EST, which then shows The Burning, a vintage-era (1981) slasher with newcomers Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter paying their dues. In the wee small hours of the night (4:30am) IFC telecasts Madman, a surprisingly good entrant from that golden age of slice-and-dice. There’s a lot on in between. The Fox Movie Channel has multiple showings (starting at 8pm) of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, (1974), musical mayhem that Popdosers should know (Paul Williams’ score is excellent, and he’s not bad, either); Turner Classic Movies risks its reputation, and your dinner, with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ barf-bag specials Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs (2:30am and 3:45am); and, if you absolutely have to have a movie with Halloween in the title, HBO-2 offers the macabre (and cruelly funny) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) at 2:35am. Rather than a costumed killer, it has a droll Dan O’Herlihy as a warlock who melts kids. Michael Myers it’s not—but it’s in the spirit of the evening, and will have to do.